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How America's Drug Problem Has Escalated

The rising problem of drugs has become a central focus of public health programs around the nation.

Since 1999, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. has more than doubled.* It’s an alarming statistic that underscores the larger drug use problem affecting our nation. A problem you can help address, if you start or advance your career in public health. Here’s what you need to know:

Over 24 Million Americans Use Illicit Drugs

A 2015 study found that 10.1% of the population aged 12 or older has used an illicit drug in the past month.† That means millions of Americans admit to using banned substances or using prescription drugs recreationally.

How America's Drug Problem Has Escalated

Marijuana Is the Most Used Drug

More than 37,500 million Americans use marijuana. While marijuana is legal in some states, it remains illegal at the federal level and is thus classified by federal agencies as an illicit drug. The most commonly used drugs after marijuana are, in order:


Opioids Are Responsible for the Most Drug-Related Deaths

While marijuana may be the most commonly used drug in the U.S., opioids are almost exclusively responsible for the recent, dramatic rise in drug-related fatalities. In 2016, opioids accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in the U.S., which is five times higher than in 1999.

Opioids cause so many deaths because they combine potency with addictiveness. When used responsibly, they are painkillers. But they can also produce feelings of euphoria and are quite physically addictive—a combination that fuels abuse and, too often, overdose.

There are several forms of opioids. These include:

Prescription Opioids
Intended to treat moderate and severe pain, prescription opioids include codeine, morphine, and the newer hydrocodone (brand name: Vicodin) and oxycodone (brand name: OxyContin). These newer opioids were designed to be less addictive and harder to abuse than previous painkillers. However, they turned out to be more addictive than advertised and easier to abuse than intended, which is why they are commonly blamed for the increase in opioid abuse and deaths, with oxycodone considered the main culprit.§

A synthetic opioid, Fentanyl is a class of prescription painkiller many times more powerful than other prescription opioids. It’s intended to treat the severest pain, such as the pain associated with surgeries and late-stage cancer. Illegally sold Fentanyl is becoming increasingly common, despite the fact that its potency greatly increases the risk of overdose.

Heroin is an illegally produced and sold form of opioid that can be injected, snorted, or smoked. Many opioid addicts start with prescription opioids but turn to heroin because it can be less expensive and more available than pills. It can also be more fatal, and is responsible for nearly half of all opioid-related deaths.

Drug-Related Deaths Are Increasing Fastest Among Middle-Aged Caucasians

While every demographic has experienced an increase in drug-related deaths, middle-aged non-Hispanic Caucasians experience a disproportionate number of deaths. In 2015, adults aged 45–54 died from drug overdoses at a rate of 30 deaths per 100,000—the highest of any age group, while non-Hispanic Caucasians had a higher age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths than non-Hispanic black persons or Hispanic persons.*

Some States Are More Affected by Drug-Related Deaths Than Others

Drug problems exist in every state. However, some states are facing significantly higher rates of drug-related deaths than others. Currently, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio are experiencing the highest death rates.* Other states with statistically higher rates include:

  • Arizona
  • Missouri
  • Connecticut
  • Nevada
  • Delaware
  • New Mexico
  • Indiana
  • Oklahoma 
  • Louisiana
  • Pennsylvania
  • Maine
  • Rhode Island
  • Maryland
  • Tennessee
  • Massachusetts
  • Utah
  • Michigan  

You Can Help Address the U.S. Drug Problem With a Public Health Degree

The federal government, every state, and many municipalities have public health programs designed to combat drug use and decrease drug-related deaths. If you want to become one of the public health professionals leading these programs—or establishing new ones—you should consider enrolling in a public health graduate program. Specifically, a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program can help you gain the skills you need to address public health problems, like drug use. With an MPH degree, you will be positioned to conduct research, engage in activities that advance the public health profession on a global and local level, and educate communities on issues vital to their health.

While decreasing drug use is certainly a difficult challenge, earning your master’s in public health doesn’t have to be. That’s because many of the best MPH programs are now available through online universities. Instead of having to live close to a campus and drive to class several times a week, an online public health degree program allows you to complete the majority of your degree from home. Plus, an online MPH program gives you the advantage of flexible scheduling. Instead of being told when in the day you have to attend class, you can attend classes for your master of public health degree at whatever time of day works best for you.

If you want a job in public health that’s focused on leading the U.S. out of its drug problem, online education can help you get the advanced degree you need.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Public Health degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2015, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the internet at

†Statista, Number of People in the U.S. Who Used Selected Illicit Drugs in the Past Year as of 2016, on the internet at

‡Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Overdose Death Data, on the internet at

§S. Moghe, Opioid History: From ‘Wonder Drug’ to Abuse Epidemic, CNN, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,